Pro-euros just talk to each other

Superficially the battle between the pro-Europeans and the Eurosceptics in British politics seems as one-sided as the recent FA Cup final. Look at the dazzling array of political stars leading the case for Europe: Blair, Brown, Clarke, Heseltine, Patten and Ashdown, to name but a few. Compare that group with the leading players espousing the sceptics' cause: Hague, Lilley, Redwood, Owen and Healey. No contest there, surely?

Actually it is one hell of a contest and, in these early stages, the lesser lights in the Eurosceptic camp are showing every sign of winning. They have the energy of the uninhibited underdog, while the pro-Europeans are displaying a confused mixture of complacency and caution, which means that the case for the euro is going largely unheard.

I should know. I have spent quite some time recently trying to find a charismatic interviewee to put the case for the euro as effectively as David Owen argued against it in a recent New Statesman interview. Owen got plenty of national newspaper coverage as well as appearing at length here. I have given up in my quest. Currently it would be easier to get an interview with the Pope than with a star from the pro-EMU camp. There is an election on and, for different reasons, the stars from the two main parties do not want to be too closely associated with the euro.

The pro-European Tories have decided to keep their heads down during the campaign. They do not want to be blamed for a poor Tory performance. But their silence in a sceptical Tory campaign is a reminder of their weakness. They are a small minority in a party that they have no intention of leaving. Only if a referendum on the single currency is won can they start to transform their party, which is why they want one as soon as possible. In the meantime they must be hoping that the Tories perform poorly in the elections, although they will not utter a word themselves to bring about such an outcome. Indeed their passivity can only help William Hague, who will portray any minor success in the elections as a triumph for his sceptical platform.

The Labour leadership is reluctant to put the case for the euro for different reasons. The focus groups and opinion polls show that voters are not impressed. So, in a very Blairite way, Tony Blair's recent declaration that he wants to end "Britain's ambivalence towards Europe" was, itself, an ambivalent statement. The implication is that ambivalence will end only when Britain has joined the single currency. But it could come to mean the opposite: that the relationship will be unambiguously defined by a decision not to join.

I am sure it is Blair's intention to lead Britain into joining EMU, but he continues to harbour some doubts about whether the currency will succeed and when a referendum will be winnable. He will not call a referendum until he is certain he can win it. In the meantime, instead of putting the case for the euro, he stresses the conditions that have to be met before Britain joins. Apart from the need for the economy to achieve "sustainable convergence", these conditions play into the sceptics' hands. "Will membership be good for employment?" the government asks. "Is there sufficient flexibility in the UK economy to deal with any problems that might emerge?" The questions are raised, and the doubts are planted. Only the doubts are in the pro-euro camp.

From the sceptics such questions elicit a firm "No". From the government comes the deadly phrase "wait and see". Those three words convulsed the Tories. In the present context their destructive effect is to qualify any endorsement of the single currency to such an extent that it appears as a sinister object that no sensible politician dare approach.

The lack of clear political leadership has created a wider vacuum. Business chiefs are waiting for the government to take the lead. On the other hand, mention pressure groups such as the European Movement to leading pro-European politicians and they raise their hands in despair. Going on my experience, I find such a reaction quite understandable. The EM's leading figures seem to spend their time in meetings, talking to people who agree with each other already.

I am told it will all be different after the elections, when an all-party pro-single-currency group will be launched. But I have doubts, partly because we are always being told that the pro-European case will be put after some event or other has passed. The other concern is that some of the leading advocates will be in an awkward position, even when the votes have safely been cast in two weeks' time.

Clarke and Heseltine will be free to make the case - but whenever they speak, their argument is obscured by politics. When they flex their muscles, the story is always the future of the Tory party, rather than the euro. The Labour advocates will continue to be hampered by the need to win a second term.

The case for the euro is not going entirely unheard. The Liberal Democrats are beating the drum softly, and some business leaders are not waiting for Blair to fire the starting gun. Colin Sharman, the chairman of KPMG, for example, in a pamphlet for the Centre for European Reform, warns with force about the "dire consequences" of delaying entry too long.

But how many voters will read a pamphlet from a relatively unknown figure?

The Eurosceptics are shouting their case from the rooftops. With honourable exceptions, such as Sharman, the pro-Europeans are talking to each other when they are talking at all. In this cup final the sceptics are, surprisingly, two goals ahead. At this rate the pro-Europeans will need extra time well beyond the start of a second term if they are ever going to win.

This article first appeared in the 31 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Between two mental universes